A New Normal for the American Family: Kids Outside of Marriage

Young, working-class adults are more receptive to bearing children outside of marriage, but they still want their kids to have two parental figures.


A 23-year-old unwed mother, Tori is the new normal. As The New York Times recently reported, more than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage, most of which are to women without a college degree. While Tori and her child's father, Aaron, talked about marriage and stumbled into a jewelers at the mall once, they had no immediate plans for engagement. But they did want a child.

Tori refers to motherhood as her calling. While her family wishes that she'd gone to college and "got established" first, Tori, now a home health care provider, doesn't regret her decision to go "from high school to mom." "Honestly, if I had waited, I don't think I would have Aidan," she said. "[He] makes me want to yank my hair out, my house is always a mess, there's food all over my carpet, my couch, his clothes are stained -- and I wouldn't have it any other way."

While such sentiments befuddle many college-educated Americans, we heard them often in our interviews with over 100 mostly white working-class young adults in southwestern Ohio. Many working-class young adults like Tori -- married or not -- view the birth of their children as one of the best things that happened to them. As one young cohabiting woman put it, having kids is "the biggest point in life. More than falling in love, more than your house, more than your money, more than anything is keeping your family alive. Keeping the world going. Like, that's what you're put on this Earth to do."

Most high-school educated Americans report that marriage is either "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them.

The stories and sentiments we heard provide some texture to what we already know from national data. According to the 2010 State of Our Unions report, 61 percent of adolescents who have a mother with a high school education said they would be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant, compared to 76 percent of adolescents whose mother is college-educated -- suggesting that young adults from working-class families are more receptive to bearing children outside of marriage.

But this does not necessarily mean that they reject marriage: Seventy-six percent of high-school educated Americans report that marriage is either "very important" or "one of the most important things" to them. This is in spite of the fact that many of them might have good reasons to be wary of marriage: Forty-three percent of high-school educated Americans say that marriage has not worked out for most people they know.

In our own research, while we heard many working-class young adults express reservations about marriage -- emphasizing the importance of not "rushing" into marriage, but seeing no problem with having kids in the meantime -- they are determined to give their children what so many of them didn't have growing up: a mom and a dad who will always be there, together (married or not).

Presented by

Amber Lapp & David Lapp

Amber and David Lapp, researchers at the Institute for American Values, are the co-investigators behind the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, an inquiry into how working-class young adults in one Ohio town form families.

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